William Bayer's latest thriller, "Pattern Crimes," parades with verve examples of what Plato called The Three Things: Soul, Body, and Money .
Bayer uses religion, sculpture and music to represent the soul; sex and murder for the body and, deputizing for money, there is thieving and politics. He sets his work inside the most beautiful man-made object in the world: the city of Jerusalem.
But somehow the whole feels less than the sum of its parts; gestalt does not close. This is frustrating because "Pattern Crimes" is deftly woven, meticulously researched, and Bayer is a courteous writer, explaining everything that may be unfamiliar to an educated WASP. What's more, the history-jaded traveler can use it as a substitute for all those guidebooks that are long on piety and on specifying exactly where David cast lustful eyes upon Bathsheba, but silent about where to engage a prostitute of either sex, where the visitor may get her/his pocket picked, where to buy "interesting low-priced goods." Bayer tells the naughty bits about the Holy City.
His puzzle begins when, just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem, the body of a streetwalker is found, her face and breasts slashed in a peculiar fashion. Then the body of an American nun turns up, next an Arab boy, after him a middle-aged Israeli businessman and, as a final outrage to custom and tradition, an Israeli girl soldier who was hitchhiking home for Passover (all over Israel are signs that read "Please give soldiers lifts").
Each of these victims bears the same gruesome signature of slashes. Israel is faced with its first serial murder case and enigmatic pattern crime. It is a job for David Bar-Lev.
Detective Bar-Lev is the idealized tough, sensitive cop--and more: He is civilized enough to know when Mendelssohn is being ill played on the cello, only once does he neglect to shave, and those who've been there think he's heaven between the sheets. (That's good to hear: One has read too many letters to the editor of the Jerusalem Post from cross Swedish girls complaining that if the fate of Israel depended on how well her sons made love, not war, nothing would have been left by the evening of 15 May, 1948.) He'd never use such a sissy word himself, but Detective Bar-Lev is a feminist.
Our tough and tender hero has an engaging team working for him in the Pattern Crimes Unit, and an eccentric boss, Rafi: "From the clutter on his desk, he picked out a pipe. Pipes and orchids: Rafi liked Turkish tobacco and bred air orchids in his greenhouse after work." It is with such economic descriptions that Bayer crowds his canvas, building into it layer upon layer of characters and events.
Still, by Page 100, with the pattern crimes fascinating but still apparently meaningless, I suddenly thought, "He's got it all wrong! Where are the politics?"
Israel eats, sleeps and dreams politics. But amid all the accurate details about the city of Jerusalem, there had been in 100 pages no mention of it at all. Then on Page 105, we read: "Ever hear the expression 'hidden symmetry?' . . . (it's) a situation where two totally different results derive from one unseeable source . . . we've got a pattern that conceals another pattern." And one page later, the politics enter with, as it were, a vengeance.
David's former girlfriend, an American journalist and small-time spy, tips him off that big political players are involved in the pattern crimes and that he'd better ease off his investigations. And then, horribly, the trail seems to turn around and focus on David's own loved ones: his dead brother, one of the hero-pilots who blew up the Baghdad nuclear reactor; his enigmatic father, a psychiatrist who has dispensed with cheap 20th-Century copies and gone for the original teaching, Kabbalah; and his lover, a beautiful runaway Soviet cellist. All these people are revealed to have hidden agendas.
Through them and the web of interrelated lives that military service creates in Israel, Bayer raises some of the sore points of contemporary Israeli politics: "Everyone knows Shin Bet has murdered prisoners. Everyone knows about Mossad assassination squads . . . high embassy officials in Washington recruit American Jews to spy on their own government."
His crime, finally, derives from a fantasized symbolic act by the violent right, one which has been used several times already in fiction but is none the worse for being secondhand. In fact, the more writers who warn about this special lunacy, the better. And Bayer has invented an ingenious method for carrying out the plot.
With all this--plus music--how is it that "Pattern Crimes" does not quite achieve wholeness? Because, I think, David Bar-Lev himself lacks authentic emotional tone. He is a character contrived to please the reader, and in the end, he is flat. One does not rejoice or despair with him. But if you want an informative, imaginative, good-natured, intelligent and fast read, here it is.